Shootout main

This luxury sedan comparison test originally ran in Issue #0 of Driven+ Magazine. Download Driven+ Magazine from the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store.

It isn’t hard to believe that the BMW 5 Series is a popular car – examples are all over the city. But the BMW is not the only car to live in this segment. Audi, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes and Jaguar are arguably the Bimmer’s closest rivals.

So we’ve gathered three of them – Audi A6, Infiniti M25 and the Lexus GS 250 – to see how they stack up against the car from Munich. A fair bit of warning: we have a lot to say so grab a cup of coffee, plant yourself in a comfortable spot and enjoy.

EXTERIOR

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Chris says:

Here’s the truth: I find the looks of these cars dull. Surprising because I was sure the Audi A6 would be the best looking car of the lot when I picked it up a day earlier. Yet, here and now, together with the BMW 520i, Infiniti M25 and Lexus GS 250, all four cars look as exciting as suits in a suit store instead a scene from Reservoir Dogs. I’ll explain.

Every car here carries its own character but when assembled together, you’ll have a manufactured operatic pop band instead of something exciting like the Avengers. The signature grilles and DRLs make them somewhat similar to one another. And having a coupe-like silhouette encourages me to wonder if the basic frame comes from the same sheet of paper.

The 5 Series always had its dual grille and its lighted irises to carry its presence. The Audi A6’s single-frame hexagonal frame gets very intimidating especially with its sharp LED day-running lights, which I think is the best in the business. The GS 250 have moved away from the humdrum to bring in stylish athleticism into its shape. Even the oddly penned M25 establishes its own niche, appealing to those who prefer more curves than lines from a ruler; although I do think there’s too much going on.

But choose I must and the Audi and Lexus occupy either side of the coin. Both designs are as different as night and day, time to flip that coin.

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The new GS 250 looks the most improved when compared to the previous generation; the spindle grille helps to put some fierceness in its face. It stands out only because the GS seem to embody a character that does not want to take itself seriously.

The Audi, on the other hand, takes itself too seriously. The single frame grille and the daytime running lights (an option for the 2.0T) makes the A6 put on an impassive face. Tour round its body and you’ll begin to notice that the lines are deliberate, no overtly flared bonnet or curve is out of place. Which ultimately bestows a cold and hard character on the car. For an executive saloon, it is not a bad thing.

Which I would choose? I’d stick to my original decision and go with the Audi. The A6 gives that on-road presence that none of the other cars give, which is why it has my vote.

Danny says:

The Infiniti M25 is a large car, and you won’t be underestimating its size with those muscular and shapely haunches, like the muscle dense limbs of predators. The effect is further enhanced by a bulging bonnet and huge, imposing grille.

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The F10 won’t turn many heads, partly because it’s such a common sight, but also because BMW is done with polarising designs from the Chris Bangle era. Munich is more interested in the classic and elegant look these days, and I think they’ve succeeded here.

And then, we have the Audi and Lexus. The A6 is trademark Audi – there’s no way one would mistake it for any other marque, but it is likely that you’ll get the model wrong. Whether you view it as a larger A4 or a junior A8, the lines are neat and the car looks smart, although I think that the looks will be much less arresting without those piercing LED bars at both ends.

My favourite by a mile is the Lexus. In a complete U-turn from its soapbar-shaped predecessor, the new GS wears a sharp suit – think Stephan Winkelmann, not Japanese salaryman. Put the older GS beside this newer one and you wouldn’t believe both cars are from the same company. The change is good.

In my eyes, the GS is the recepient of the previous-gen E60 5-Series’ baton as the athlete in the class, in terms of looks at least. The blend of sharp lines and curves, with no excess fat, really does it for me, and the assertive new “spindle grille” dominated face tops off the new image nicely.

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Anthony says:

It’s not that it’s overtly radical, but given the company here, the M25 is certainly different. I spent the most time with it, and though by the end of the comparo my indifference hadn’t turned to love, there was at least the element of appreciation for what Infiniti designers were trying to achieve – the term presence comes to mind.

Which is more than what can be said for the A6. It is stately, but on the whole plies safe ground, its mix of lines and flow clean, predictable but ultimately, boring. Yes, you can call it handsome, but it’s the sort of car you’d want to be in if you wanted to be seen, but not. Such is the conundrum.

As for the 5 Series, the F10 is also classifiable as authoritative, but its design flow has come along from the E60’s gilt-edged presentation. The result is something far more refined, which works for many, I suppose, because the F10 is simply flooding the roads. With that said, I still prefer the tauter rendition served by the E60. At its best, that one was simply menacing.

Finally, the Lexus, and here is a shape one can well learn to love. Given the last outing, which in simple terms can best be described as ambiguous – bloated, at that – in its interpretation of what a premium sedan should be, the new GS is a veritable panzer, arguably more Teutonic-looking than its German counterparts.

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The overall definition is high, and it works for me – the lines and strokes hang together, with an organic feel to it all, even with the edges and kinks. Not everyone in the group thought it was the most eye-catching, but there you are, and that’s why Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavours. I’ll have a serving of Lexus, with some toppings, please.

INTERIOR

Chris says:

I hop into the A6 and I am quickly immersed in a sea of knobs and toggles, all backlit in a reddish glow, which I don’t mind one bit. Yes, it looks busy but the switches are arranged logically in the centre console and placed close to the driver. However, they are not as easy to use as you think.

Some of the knobs here have two functions and it needs a button press or two to make it switch from task to task. So you need to learn how to use the interior to make the most out of the car. And that daunts most people.

Another interface that is not as user-friendly as it should be is Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface. It is improved than the one you can find on the CT200h, but it still far from goal. The joystick has more resistance built into it, so you know when it jumps from one option to the next. But the placement of the options on the screen is clumsy and there always is an extra push needed before something meaningful is done.

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The best interface that I have used so far is the iDrive, which uses one knob that you can twist, push and tap to do all sorts of things. BMW has evolved its iDrive into something really special, intuitive and friendly. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

The multimedia interface of the M25 is nothing to shout about, but I do like what Infiniti did to the place. The cascade centre console is a refreshing change to the sheer cliff that you’ll find in almost all cars. There is much thought going into the choice of trim and colour, even the accompanying materials adds to the plushness of the interior. Somehow, I find it easy to live inside this car.

The seats are comfortable. But you don’t merely sit on it; you let your posterior be cradled instead. The rear offers plenty of room, especially the legroom and specifically the knee area. The backs of the front seats are carved out to make way for more real estate without affecting the comfort of the front seats so the knees of the rear passenger do not need to touch the front seat.

The Lexus is also quite comfortable to sit in, even at the back. The backrest has more tilt, which makes it feel like you’re sitting on a sofa. Surprisingly, it is both German makes that force you to sit a little more upright than usual. So it is not as comfortable as its interior design suggests.

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So which do I like the best? Obviously it is the Infiniti M25. Although it is as over-designed as the exterior, the inside has a certain ambience that gives you a pleasant and relaxed feeling; much like how a five-star hotel effortlessly delivers.

Danny says:

The Infiniti boasts sumptuous materials and attention to detail absent from the pack. The semi-aniline leather is supple and inviting, the Japanese ash wood is infused with silver powder to “3D” the grain effect, the driver’s knee rests on soft padded leather on the centre tunnel, the classy analogue clock, the blend of colours and textures… you get the drift.

The swoopy cabin design is not to my personal taste, but it’s an interior that soothes and pampers well. The seating position feels higher than the other three cars, which adds to the relaxed, gliding feel. There are also ventilated (and heated) seats that work well in the current hot spell.

What’s not to like? The locally fitted colour screen is the poorest of the lot, looks cheap and doesn’t work particularly well. And the amusing sound it makes on startup belongs to a video game, not a luxury car.

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The BMW is the polar opposite. No flair and drama, everything works in an austere but very efficient manner, almost like Chancellor Merkel’s preaching to the troubled Eurozone.

The two classic BMW dials, the no-frill displays, the AC controls (I like the individually adjustable fan speed) – they’re all straightforward to look at and to use. BMW’s iDrive, much criticised at birth, has evolved to be the benchmark control system; the longer you drive it, the more likely you’re going to not crave for more.

The Audi’s spaceship cockpit appeals to certain folks, but there’s too much going on for minimalist me. It irritates me that simple operations like adjusting the fan speed needs two separate actions: first, press the solo fan button hidden in that sea of red, then turn the dial, which also controls temperature.

Getting into the car at night, and without the luxury of time to settle and adapt, I just couldn’t find the instrument brightness adjuster quick enough to save my eyes. Attempting to navigate around the MMI on the fly takes a lot of grey matter, which saps quite a bit of attention, leaving less for the road ahead.

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The Lexus fares better, but it’s not perfect. The mouse-like Remote Touch system is linked to a mega sized 12.3-inch screen with some cool graphics, but the user interface needs some tweaking. The “mouse” was too sensitive for me (every nudge of mine pushed it to the end) while a dedicated back button would be good, too.

That aside, I like what Lexus has done with the GS’ dashboard, blending a modern “techy feel” with elegance. Like the outer skin, there’s fresh thinking here, and no traditional “waterfall” style centre console to remind you of Toyota. There’s a good-looking small diameter steering wheel with shift paddles, too.

The seats and driving position, while cushy enough, are quite conducive for sporty driving. Even the rear seats get good side bolsters. The new GS is really living up to its billing as a new breed of Lexus.

Anthony says:

If you’re the type who values a sense of occasion in a cabin, then the Infiniti’s is the place to be. It’s the most old school fashion of the four in how everything is pitched, from elements to design, but it is undeniably plush.

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Also high on the list is the level of attention to detail – witness the work on the ash wood inlays as well as the varied blend of surface textures on call. Design-wise, cosseting would best describe it, aided by the workings of the Bose sound system on call. Ah, but there’s one thing that spoils the whole sense of belonging, and that’s the incredibly tacky startup tune that chirps away when you turn on the ignition. Game console, anyone?

Old-school plush to space-age kitsch, that’s the jump you get stepping from the M25 into the A6’s interior, which continues to ply the “let’s put all the switch and function wares we possibly can into a cabin” route. Busy doesn’t begin to describe it, and that sea of red (never a favourite) doesn’t help matters.

In terms of quick engagement, you can either be overwhelmed by it (likely) or just ignore it all (quite impossible). I simply got irritated. If the operation aspects were simpler, perhaps it would be bearable, but items like the MMI continue to confound, and on the whole switchgear operation features redundancy like its going out of fashion.

Thankfully, the approach served up by the Lexus is less nefarious. There’s a quiet elegance about how everything is presented in the cabin, and of note is the refinement and level of thought that has gone into things, compared to the previous gen’s interior.

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It’s not completely compelling, of course, and some elements need more work. The large 12.3-inch screen should rightly be a winner, but is flawed by lower resolution levels that take the edge off the size.

Likewise the Remote Touch system, which suffers some operational anomalies – chief among these is a lack of sensitivity correlation between controller and the accuracy of movement/placement on screen. Still, there’s plenty to like, the seats, driving position and smoothness of switchgear operation being items of note. The rear seats aren’t too shabby either.

In terms of overall balance, however, the BMW seems to have gotten its act settled the best. Not the prettiest – there will be those who will argue that it’s all rather ascetic looks-wise, but much of it has to do with familiarity, for us at least. Yes, alright, it’s a bit bland, the cabin, missing the frills and fancy found in the other machines in the test, but less is more, when you get it right.

Hidden underneath that conservative veneer is a high pedigree of operational refinement, sensed more than seen – for example, the long-evolved iDrive makes its other competitors clumsy and awkward in comparison, and for driving position and overall in-cabin scope and tactility, the 520i is the one to beat in the group.

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PERFORMANCE

Chris says:

Things get hairy from here. But before I can properly let loose, I have to say that I did all of my driving with the sportiest drive setting that the car can give.

I’ll start by crossing out the Infiniti from the list. Not to say that it is absolutely rubbish, it is not. Its ride is supple and absorbs the bumps all too well, almost like driving on foam mattresses. Have not done that before? Then let me tell you that it will be one of the most comfortable rides you’ll ever have. And unfortunately, the car also handles as if it is driving on foam mattresses.

You see, the steering does not feel right. Its weight is adjusted according to speed, which is good. But while it feels heavy, there isn’t much feedback coming from the wheel; which is bad. It is also not quite quick and not as precise when compared to the rest of the pack.

And then, there’s the power (or lack thereof) to contend with. While the Infiniti gets a nice-sounding 2.5-litre V6 lump, the engine only squeezes out 218hp and 252Nm, which is good for a century sprint of 8.5 seconds. The numbers does not translate well to real-world speed; it feels lagged.

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A seven-speed automatic is mated to the powerplant but it does not feel snappy nor does it shifts thought the gears quickly. It takes a while before the M25 build any sort of respectable speed. So if it is performance you are looking for, then you should look to the other cars. With that said, the M25 is a car that you’d want if you do most of your driving at a sedate pace.

The A6 is the second car to be crossed from my list. Not because it is rubbish – far from it – but the Lexus and BMW feels much better to drive. The difference here is the Audi’s front-wheel drive format; the rest are rear-wheel driven.

So, the A6 can get understeery at times, especially when you try attacking the apexes at higher speeds. Quattro this is not, but if you take time to learn the car’s intricacies, you’ll find the Audi’s handling very agreeable.

Power is derived from a 2.0-litre TFSI force-induced engine. While it only generates 180hp, the powerplant churns out 320Nm of torque between 1,500 and 3,900rpm. It really makes the A6 feel quicker than its 0 – 100km/h time suggests; 8.3 seconds is recorded on the time sheets. And it is good to a top speed of 226km/h.

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Here’s a shocker: the A6 sports a CVT gearbox that gives you eight pseudo-gears. There are two things that usually come with a CVT, which are the droning of the gearbox and the lag in acceleration. Both are delightfully absent in the A6.

It makes cruising the highway a comfortable experience. The lag in acceleration is still there, but barely noticeable. In fact, switch over to manual mode and all discrimination disappears. The shift is immediate and the power is transferred to the wheels quickly. All in all, Audi has done a good job in making the CVT feel very un-CVT.

The A6 comes with drive select, which lets the driver tune the setting of the engine, gearshifts and suspension. Even with dynamic-mode selected, which makes the car a little tighter and sportier, the Audi falls short of being excellent. As I said earlier, the Lexus and the BMW has this one in the bag. But which is better?

Numbers first. The GS250 has a 2.5-litre V6 that produces 206hp and 253Nm. Its 0-100km/h is clocked at 8.8 seconds and has a top speed of 230km/h. A six-speed automatic is mated to the engine.

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The 520i gets a turbocharged 2.0-litre that generates 184hp and 270Nm of torque. The BMW goes to 100km/h from zero in eight seconds flat and hits a top speed of 226km/h. It has an eight-speed auto that transmits energy to the rear wheels.

Head-to-head, the GS has more power but less torque than the 5 Series. Yet, it is the German car that reaches the 100km/h mark earlier than the Japanese. It translates almost accurately in reality too. The eight-speed auto of the Bimmer is relentless. The upshifts are smooth and precise, exactly hitting all the sweet spots so it loses no time at all.

The lack of two forward ratios in the Lexus is telling; the GS takes a few tenths longer to hit its optimum shift points. While it is decent on the straights and downhill, the Lexus somewhat struggles on inclines. It is slow to kick down a cog to summon the power it needs – the manual mode clears up all the confusion.

Things aren’t as clear-cut on roads that are more twisted than a David Fincher movie. In equal doses, both cars follow the road well. The steering on both cars is very point-and-shoot; aim where you want to go and accelerate, and the car will do the rest. Both rarely put a foot wrong too, although the GS arrives on the limit of its grip easier than the 520i.

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To split hairs, the BMW is slightly more refined than the GS when it comes to handling. With refinement comes predictability, so you know what the 5 Series will do in any given situation. It is fun for a whole 15 minutes before I start realise that the brake-cut apex-accelerate out of the corners become one glorified wash-rinse-repeat. I start to wish I were behind the wheel of the Lexus.

As I said earlier, the GS250’s handling isn’t refined. In fact, it has a tendency to oversteer with threats of breaking the rear grip. This makes the drive a little more on the edge; I have to be on the ball at all times ready to counter-steer. And for once I don’t mind that the Lexus is slower to come to power because it inspires one to think ahead more and hold the revs for the next corner or the next climb. I do admit that I am liking this car more.

Danny says:

The previous-gen GS had all the driving appeal of a Camry. This is different. The new GS is eager and willing to play curves! And as B roads go, the route we drove on was challenging: hairpin after hairpin, one side hill, one side cliff, most corners blind.

Turn in is sharp, and there’s a sense of lightweight and agility. Body roll is a non-issue and the steering is quick enough on zig-zag roads. I sense a lively tail, too, although this car’s VSC is swift and strict. The challenge was to drive as hard as possible without the annoying VSC threatening to “trim my lead” over the BMW nipping at my tail. Also, if they have dialled in more steering feel, this would have been a great driving package. But I have steering paddles, and they are being put to good use.

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It is manual mode all the way, which is why I can’t tell you how well (or not) it works in the daily grind. But I can report that the paddles, which turn along with the steering, work well enough with fast shifts and a nice click. This V6 engine note is noteworthy, especially in the second half of the rev range. Artificially enhanced or not, it’s a sonorous voice that will elicit a chuckle or two as you ram home.

So yes, it’s a new kind of Lexus. But as much fun that was, I know deep down that the BMW has its measure in the driving department. The F10′s innocent sheep’s clothing hides a chassis that is truly talented. Body control is fantastic in Sport mode and the steering is sublime in this company. Compared to the Lexus, I could power out of corners quicker.

And that drivetrain is faultless. Eight speeds might sound like a lot of ratios to get lost into, but it never happens. The turboed inline-four’s brutal efficiency at both ends – performance and fuel consumption – means I don’t miss the inline-six of old.

The F10 also does the mundane very well. Cruising comfort is good and a press of the selector sends it into Comfort+ mode, where the active dampers do their best to send your occupants into slumber. Through the years, entry-level Fives were great but slow cars. This 520i is simply a great car.

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Jumping from the BMW into the Infiniti is like being thrown an axe after hours of working with a scalpel. I approached the M the same way I did with the 520i, and it turned out to be a bad idea. It took just two corners to exhibit really slow steering, plenty of drivetrain lag and bulk that’s hard to mask.

It sounds horrible but it’s not. The Infiniti just isn’t meant for days like this, preferring long highway cruises and urban use, where its soothing character and brilliant ride comfort come into play. Earlier, I was tasked to collect the car from downtown KL, and the accompanying mad traffic jam and long highway crawl back home became irrelevant.

What about the Audi? Well, there’s nothing outstanding here and I almost don’t recall how it drives. Maybe I do – it feels like a Volkswagen, and I mean it as a compliment. The 2.0 TFSI is its usual self, which is good, and Audi’s CVT gearbox doesn’t annoy – also good. Ride comfort is another plus.

In the A4, there’s not one Audi Drive Select setting that I’m comfortable with (ride is fine in Comfort, but steering is too light; steering has better weight in Sport, but ride becomes crashy), but better balance can be found here. Fast enough, too.

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Anthony says:

It’s with the Infiniti that I chug along for most of the uphill sections of the route. Underneath the visceral exterior is very much a gentle soul, meant to amble rather than storm along. Comfort levels are high; it offered the plushest ride, by far the most compliant of the four, and on a highway and cruising along at speed, this isn’t a bad thing.

Get into close-quarter terrain, however, and it offers a less picturesque take. On windy, twisty tarmac, steering effort is needed to get the bulk going and pointing where you want it to. In the end, easing off eased the strain, but you’ll still get a good arm workout with this one.

Of course, the route isn’t something like what an M25 is likely to encounter everyday. In far more familiar landscapes (read: city), its refined, relaxed character and simple, unfettered charm (silly start-up chime aside) would be just the thing its buyer is looking for.

Going from the inherent laziness of the Infiniti’s boat-like steering to the sharp immediacy of the BMW meant that stabbing the throttle and putting quick input to the wheel almost meant a turn for the worse, quite literally. Nothing uncatchable, but breathtaking all the same.

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The Munich kid is the sharpest and most agile offering by far, already even without Sport mode engaged. It responds to input in the usual BMW fashion – controlled, precise, unflappable. You do things that you wouldn’t dream of in something like the M25, and so in the end I did the ‘drop back, stop and charge up’ act to the convoy repeatedly, because it was just joy doing so.

However, if you choose to be civil about it, the car does that bit ably as well. Ride compliance and overall comfort levels bows to the Infiniti, but the Comfort+ damper setting makes for a rather benign beast, aided by the smoothness of the eight-speeder tranny. In terms of versatility, the BMW offers the widest spectrum of shades – good for a giggle when spanked, and thoroughly business-like when restrained.

I take the Audi down the hill, keeping company with the Infiniti. Unable to get past it on the narrow stretch, I settle down to fuss over the switchgear, and keep noticing the suspension. It’s undoubtedly the firmest of the four, especially at low-level speeds, and though speeding things up improves compliancy (not at the expense of handling), there’s always a detached feeling to everything.

Surprisingly, the steering, which is lifeless off-centre in terms of feel and devoid of any real weight, has good accuracy and speed, and the rest of the bulk follows suit when pressed. The Audi tracks well, and short of the tightest, twistiest bits, accomplishes movement in an even-tempered manner, with great poise at that.

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It does so, however, in completely unemotional fashion – cold, even if it’s capable, that’s what I felt about it as I walked away. Plus points are its engine, ever the showpiece, and a rather silky gearbox.

The Lexus is infinitely more fun to drive. Energetic, with a brisk, light nature, there’s a frisky quality to its disposition when asked to bomb along. The steering feel could be better. And that gearbox could do with some more work in terms of transitions, but the chassis is lively and eager, and it shows.

For sure, it has higher thresholds than the previous GS, revealed by taking it into – metaphorical – places where the last incarnation would have waved the white flag in abject terror. The VSC is still overtly intrusive though, and the car never feels unbridled because of that. Still, doubtless that anyone would buy a Lexus to go mental with it.

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CONCLUSION

Chris says:

I still favour the Audi A6. Personally, I think it is best looking car here. I am also all for the complexity of the A6’s human interface and the multi-function buttons; it discourages all to play with my settings. The downside is its power and handling, which is easily cured by having the bigger 3.0 litre version instead.

However, I have to give my win to the Lexus. Despite the fact that I would like to introduce its Remote Touch Interface to a hammer, the rest of the car ticks all the right criteria. I especially like how this GS handles in spite of the fact that it lacks straight-line speed or its gears sometimes struggles to find the right ratio.

Danny says:

I really enjoyed being a part of this shootout, for it pitched many different, sometimes opposing, characters and philosophies together. There is no superior luxury car to rule the rest, for each has its strengths. To me, the BMW 520i is the best car to drive here, and it’s also very good as a comfortable, efficient luxury cruiser.

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But the eye opener of the test for me was the Lexus. This is not just a new GS, but a new kind of Lexus. It looks the part as a sporty exec, and is beginning to drive the part as well. Not perfect yet, but with this quantum leap, they’re heading in the right direction. Good job Lexus!

Anthony says:

The Infiniti, and to a lesser extent the Audi, are inherently left field, for those who want to serve notice of intent, but in a less in-your-face manner. Or for that matter, for those who want to be different. My choice boils down to the Lexus and BMW. The Lexus is still not quite the finished article, but the newfound approach – both in shape and character – struck a chord with me.

Nonetheless, the marker invariably gets placed on the 520i. In terms of kit and mod cons, it’s missing bits here and there compared to the other three, and the shape is a bit too generic for my liking. All the necessary bits that matter are there, however, and its wide-ranging spectrum offers it the most balanced view of the world, at least from a driver’s perspective, and in the end, this rubric is still the one to beat.

Lexus GS 250

BMW 520i

Audi A6

Infiniti M25